‘Obviously none of you are here from a sense of calling are you?’ the lecturer asked rhetorically. I wasn’t brave enough to speak up publically, but I knew that something deep had brought me to this campus. I had followed my love of people and of God and found myself studying social work. Yet as I learned about law and child protection and service-provider/service-user relationships, I wondered if I was really in the right place.
Around that time I heard Bob Holman’s story and it sparked a glow of inspiration in me. Hearing of his recent death reminded me of the hope that his version of ‘social work’ gave me.
“Bob Holman, who has died aged 79 after suffering from motor neurone disease, earned a unique place in social work, when, in 1976, he resigned his professorship in social administration at Bath University to become a community worker on the city’s deprived Southdown estate. He saw his affluence and position as inconsistent with his Christian faith. He and his wife, Annette, and their two children, Ruth and David, moved from a comfortable middle-class area in the city to a home next to the estate and he started the project where he then worked.” (The Guardian – 15th June 2016)
Bob Holman later moved to the East End of Glasgow where he continued to live alongside his neighbours as a “resourceful friend”. His story was one of the first I’d heard of someone intentionally moving in, seeking to stand in relationship alongside those living in poverty, rather than stand apart offering handouts and services. On my practical placements, I was exposed to the depression of deprivation in Glasgow, and I could also see the limits of my professional role*. I was so encouraged to hear about this beacon of hope.
I later had a similar ember-stirring sensation as I heard a friend talk about walking alongside struggling mums in an inner city area. My tears surprised me when she spoke of mutuality and building a friendship together instead of operating a system. The glimmer was there again as friends in church shared their hopes for their neighbours in their ‘urban priority’ community.
I recently heard that ‘we detect, rather than invent our mission’ (Viktor Frankl). Following the inner sparks from those stories, I’m now in this place of dusty roads and homes of metal sheets. I am so grateful for the stories of modern day prophets like Bob Holman, living their counter-cultural lives with love, intention and authenticity. As we consider our next season I want to continue to pay attention to the stories and sparks, and follow them to adventure and calling.
‘God often shows us our purpose in quiet ways. We see a sliver here, a slice there. There are moments when our hearts thump in our chests, and we’re left wondering what it means, patching his holiness over our humanity and seeing the way it gives shape to our tattered edges’ Shannan Martin – Falling Free
* I’m certainly not dissing social work, some of the bravest and most compassionate people I know are social workers or have social workers. Social workers do essential, difficult, life-preserving work. I believe that there’s also a need for less formal support too, for relationships without the same strict professional boundaries and limited availability.